The Borderlands formula is about as tried and true as it gets, or at least it seemed to be anyway. You shoot, loot, and shoot again in an endless struggle to make sure your power levels and gear scores earned by a dizzying amount of gear stay above the thresholds of whatever you're shooting at. One might wonder then where the Borderlands experience can go to further evolve, but in the case of Tiny Tina's Wonderlands, all it takes is a lighter story and a tweaked feature or two to make this the best Borderlands experience in years.
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands piggybacks on the success of Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep, a Borderlands 2 DLC often regarded as one of the best expansions Gearbox has produced. It stars Tiny Tina, bursting with energy as always, as she guides her new friends Frette and Valentine as well as the player themselves in a game of Bunkers & Badasses, a tabletop game filled with "skellymen," trolls, and all sorts of fantastical elements.
That might sound like a 50/50 split between TTRPGs and Borderlands, but it's really more of an 80/20 leaning towards Borderlands. Psychos from Borderlands become Bandits or Cultists in Wonderlands while shields become "wards." After a few connections like that, you start to get the gist of how things translate. Familiar characters like Torgue, Butt Stallion, and Brick make appearances, too, thought that all makes sense given that the campaign comes from Tiny Tina's mind.
But before you get to all that, you have to first partake in Tiny Tina's Wonderlands' most innovative and ground-breaking feature of all: Creating a custom character. This feature which serves as the starting point for an endless array of other games, believe it or not, has never been present in a Borderlands game before.
The way it's implemented here isn't even all that special either. You first choose one of six classes to play as which fulfill different fantasy archetypes before customizing appearances. Finish by selecting an origin to determine starting bonuses, allocate some stat points to various things like critical hits and max ward, and you're off to the Wonderlands. It's such a simple thing that it'll make you think Borderlands surely has done it before and wonder afterwards why it took so long to implement. But considering how important having your own personalized character is to the TTRPG experience, it's better late than never here even if it's a lite version that saves you the trouble of characters sheets and extensive backstories.
Creating a class is well and good, but it's not until you get to multiclass that the system truly shines. A certain threshold in the game allows you to pick a second class complete with its Class Feat, Action Skills, and Passive Skills. You still only get to have one Action Skill active at a time, but you'll have Passive Skills from both skill trees so long as you've got the points for it. Both Class Feats are always active, however, which means you end up with things like a spell-slinging Spellshot joined by two companions, a melee-focused Brr-Zerker with a knack for critical hits, or any other combos you can come up with. Simple is sometimes better, and simple works wonders in the Wonderlands.
Those spells are game-changers, too, even if they only appear to replace grenades on the surface. Elemental explosions and ice spikes only scratch the surface with hydras, wyverns, reality-bending auras and more at your disposal the further you venture. I found a chargeable spell at one point that brought lightning down from the sky and disintegrated nearly anything it touched, but it sadly had to be discarded in favor of loot matching my level. I've yet to find another lightning bolt, and for the first time in a long time within a looter-shooter, it's been nice to have to pine after something so small yet so attainable. Perhaps it's better that lightning bolt is never found.
With returning characters like Tiny Tina and Claptrap comes the personification of Borderlands humor injected into Wonderlands. The jokes are fast and furious to the point that the hits stand out far more than the misses, and the fantasy setting allows Wonderlands to lean into the parodies and references Gearbox already excelled at. Without spoiling those, the metagame of playing a game within a fantasy game allows for much more leeway when it comes to riffing off all manners of fables and storied tales. Ashly Burch puts on a stellar performance as Tiny Tina, too, in what feels like one of her best appearances yet despite Tiny Tina being far from a new role.
That game-within-a-game element is the string that connects everything in Wonderlands together and makes things mesh so well. Borderlands games are always rife with humor and explosions of loot, but they also feature stories of loss, world-ending peril, and other serious topics. That's not to say they shouldn't have conflict, but those stories sometimes seem at odds with the comparatively lighthearted moment-to-moment interactions players experience. Wonderlands' story itself is not without conflict, but the layered setup provides a sort of buffer for those tribulations that always feels organic and never intrusive.
Once you tally up the new and the old, there's really not that much "new" about Tiny Tina's Wonderlands, or at least not new in terms of innovation. Cascading loot and relentless humor check the Borderlands boxes, but instead of coming up with totally revolutionary elements, all it had to do was shift things around and finally let us create a character. Future Borderlands experiences may not be set in fantasy settings of this kind, but they should at least look to adopt in some ways the fanciful and varied nature of Tiny Tina's Wonderlands.
A PC review code for Tiny Tina's Wonderlands was provided by the publisher.0comments